The Beautiful Struggle

Just one day after the inauguration of a man who was amazed that it would rain on such an auspicious occasion, Americans turned out against him in the largest one-day demonstration the nation has ever seen.  In fact, people were protesting on Inauguration Day, they were protesting long before, and they’ve been protesting ever since – bigly.

(Even as I write this on a Saturday night, spontaneous demonstrations are breaking out at US airports in support of foreign detainees affected by the Trump executive order on immigration.)

The millions of people who turned out for the Washington, D.C. Women’s March and its sister demonstrations were protesting about more than women’s issues, front and center though they may have been.  This unpopular President has made enemies of every interest group and demographic that has experienced some social progress over the years – minorities, women, LGBTQ people, immigrants –and he relished the notoriety.

As unpopular, unpredictable and reactionary as Trump is, let’s not forget that he is supported by an economically and socially conservative, rabidly right-wing Republican majority in both houses of Congress.  And our own once “Blue” state is solidly in the grip of a backward GOP that controls both chambers of the legislature, effectively rendering Gov. Tom Wolf impotent.  Donald Trump is merely the culmination, the inevitable consequence, of a national politics that has been tilting to the right for decades and given us the current GOP dominance at the state and federal levels.

An effective resistance must recognize this and oppose not just Trump – an easy target, after all – and deal with all of the right-wing crazies and their political vehicle, the Republican Party.  The demonstrators who showed up in Philadelphia for the strategy session between Trump and Republicans in Congress are a hopeful sign of this understanding.

rally15

Opportunity in crisis

The key to social and political progress is whether the American people can build unity between those on the left of the political spectrum – so-called progressives – and those in the middle, the people who consider themselves to be liberal, “reasonable” and nonconfrontational.  We are lucky to have Trump as a lightning rod, a figure so vulgar and open in his enthusiasm for mean, nasty policies that even middle-of-the-roaders are appalled.  He is the biggest recruiter for center-left unity.

Trump’s lack of experience, extreme narcissism and strong-man pretentions do not endear him to members of his party.  When the going gets tough for Trump and his popularity plummets further, there is reason to expect that huge segments of the GOP will desert him.  The movement that we are building should encourage and exploit these splits, and our movement should be aggressive and not defensive.  For example, rather than merely oppose the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act or demand its restoration, we should call for the creation of a modern, long overdue single-payer health care system.

Such a call will only be pie in the sky if we can’t do two things in the coming years. First, we must expose and discredit the forces behind the GOP – the social nuts like the Tea Party and the evangelicals, and especially the businessmen and women who are bloated with power and money – and relegate it to the trash can of history once and for all.  Then, we must wean ourselves from our dependence on a Democratic Party that is, when it comes to economic policy, the mere flip side of the GOP.  We need to build our own independent political vehicles that do not rely on the money of rich people, who will never support the kind of policies that we need – policies that put the well-being of all the people before the profits and well-being of the wealthy few.

It will not be easy to build the unity and political clarity necessary to achieve these goals.  But it is not impossible.  Trump has barely been in office a week and millions of people are nervous, restless, ready to act.  Powerful forces – or potentially powerful forces – have yet to leap into the fray, especially organized labor.

As we continue our beautiful struggle, we will learn: we will learn who our real enemies are; we will learn that progress does not come easy; we will learn something of our own mettle; we will recognize those who share our common interests; we will learn to trust each other.

We will learn the meaning of the word solidarity!

— James Collins

 

 

 

Which Way Forward? It’s Time for Organized Labor to Move Left

Now union leaders face a huge, embarrassing question: Why, after unions spent more than $100 million to defeat Donald J. Trump, did Mrs. Clinton win only narrowly among voters from union households, by 51 percent to 43 percent according to exit polls? Clinton even lost to Trump among union households in Ohio, 49 percent to 44 percent.

“We underestimated the amount of anger and frustration among working people and especially white workers, both male and female, about their economic status,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and chairman of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s political committee. (New York Times, Nov. 26, 2016)

How can labor’s top leadership be so insulated from the reality of falling wages, rising health care costs, mounting debts, and endless wars that they were clueless to see the frustration of workers exploding right before their eyes? Are these same top leaders capable of organizing and leading the type of popular campaign to protect workers in the upcoming period.

In his recent posting “Red Dawn in Pennsylvania,” Coleman Saint James writes a critical analysis of the recent Trump victory and asks “What went wrong?” Not that a vote for Clinton was the answer, but what drove many in the working class to support Trump? Why was voter turnout lower? Why did working-class towns like Erie, Pa., that had previously voted for Obama now vote for Trump?

Was the Clinton message to workers so dull and muted that people did not bother to listen? Was it all about anti-immigrant racism and sexism?

The recent slew of billionaire right-wing appointments to cabinet positions by Trump signals that a sharp move further to the right is in the works. Trump’s appointees and congressional Republican leaders seem to have nearly every social program on the cutting board next year, a signal that Trump is prepared to betray some of his key campaign promises not to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Given the immense dangers that lie ahead, Saint James questions the strategies and tactics union members and working people might utilize to defend themselves and the public interest. Is the reliance on an all-consuming and one-dimensional strategy of electoral politics advocated by the Democrats and liberal establishment really up to the challenge after decades of decline?

For a relevant history lesson, Saint James offers the 1988 Jesse Jackson for President campaign as an example that might offer a few clues as to how to revive and deepen today’s struggles. The 1988 Jackson campaign, like the 2016 Sanders campaign, had as its foundation the now forgotten working-class message of jobs, peace and justice that resonated with a substantial numbers of workers in western Pennsylvania.

For example, Jackson received 22.5% of the Democrat primary votes in Allegheny County, 16.4% in Beaver, 16.3% in Butler and 49% in Lawrence County. And as a comparison, Sanders received 44% in Allegheny, 42% Beaver, 39% in Lawrence County.

A crucial forerunner of his electoral campaign was the Rainbow Coalition, a Jackson-led independent, grassroots organization that sought to unite broad masses under the banner of left and progressive policies. The Coalition’s record helped to give credibility to the local campaign organizers and opened the door to a wider understanding of the need for the unity of workers regardless of color.

This simple but powerful class-based message, coupled with an independent organizational strategy, is the antidote to the demagoguery of Trump and the phony corporate identity politics of Democrats today. Although most of labor’s officialdom supported Michael Dukakis, the eventual Democratic nominee in 1988, Jackson generated a critical mass of support amongst labor’s lower levels of leadership and the rank-and- file. A thorn in the side of corporate america, Democratic Party officials, and top labor leaders, Jackson’s campaign message was able to grab the hearts and minds of a sizable portion of the population, even without the financial and organizational support that was withheld by corporate, Democratic and labor leaders.

And contrary to today’s liberal rhetoric of an irrevocable divide between the white working-class and black America, these two groups were equal partners in Jackson’s coalition. Comments by Ted Rechel, a United Paperworkers union member during the 1988 strike against International Paper in rural Clinton County, Pa., typifies the strength of Jackson’s class-based message:

He’s the only guy in the whole lot who did anything for the people who work for a living and have been shoved out of the door by scabs and Ronald Reagan politics… He’s the only guy in the whole world who did anything for people who work for a living and is going to get a lot of votes from this rural, redneck community.” (Morning Call, Apr. 21, 1988)

However, the strong public support for a bold program of jobs, peace and justice promulgated by Jackson in 1988 did not result in the formation of an organization that could be a building block to give political expression to this untapped sentiment. Jackson disbanded his Rainbow Coalition and folded his grassroots election campaign into the waiting arms of the Democrats, where it and the key issues that propelled his success ultimately died. It became another failed electoral campaign that spent millions of dollars and left supporters demobilized with no clear path to continue building a grassroots movement.

Jackson went away from the political stage but the same issues resurfaced again in a smaller version with the Dennis Kucinich 2004 presidential run — a strong grassroots network with a left/progressive message that ultimately channeled these resources and enthusiasm to the mainstream Democrats.

Again, in 2016, the Sanders campaign, like Jackson in 1988 and Kucinich in 2004 (but with significantly more traction), has proven that there is a solid, consistent mass base in the working class for a program that focuses on the evils of corporate rule in America. Similar in many ways to the Jackson campaign, Sanders’ grassroots supporters were ostracized, belittled and ignored by organized labor and the officialdom of the Democratic Party. Like Jackson, Sanders is keeping his movement in the Democratic party and attempting to carve out a concrete left wing within.

Standing in opposition to the energy of Sanders’ insurgency was the floundering Clinton campaign which, because of its ties to Big Money and allegations of wholesale corruption, was unable to offer a strong anti-corporate message. Just how out-of-touch Clinton’s politics were with the conditions of working people in America are made evident in two recent studies.

The surging income inequalities of American society and the crisis faced by everyday workers are highlighted by a recent report from three economists, Thomas Piketty, Emanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman. They state:

Our data show that the bottom half of the income distribution in the United States has been completely shut off from economic growth since the 1970s. From 1980 to 2014, average national income per adult grew by 61 percent in the United States, yet the average pre-tax income of the bottom 50 percent of individual income earners stagnated at about $16,000 per adult after adjusting for inflation. In contrast, income skyrocketed at the top of the income distribution, rising 121 percent for the top 10 percent, 205 percent for the top 1 percent, and 636 percent for the top 0.001 percent.

It’s a tale of two countries. For the 117 million U.S. adults in the bottom half of the income distribution, growth has been non-existent for a generation while at the top of the ladder it has been extraordinarily strong.

An economy that fails to deliver growth for half of its people for an entire generation is bound to generate discontent with the status quo and a rejection of  establishment politics.
[http://equitablegrowth.org/research-analysis/economic-growth-in-the-united-states-a-tale-of-two-countries/]

Similarly, the sinking fortunes of the vast majority of American retirees is highlighted by a recent study conducted by the Institute for Policy Studies, “A Tale of Two Retirements,” which highlights the enormous gap between the pensions of the top CEO’s and those of working class americans.

Just 100 CEOs have company retirement funds worth $4.7 billion — a sum equal to the entire retirement savings of the 41 percent of U.S. families with the smallest nest eggs.  This $4.7 billion total is also equal to the entire retirement savings of the bottom:

  • 59 percent of African-American families
  • 75 percent of Latino families
  • 55 percent of female-headed households
  • 44 percent of white working class households.
  • Of workers 56-61 years old, 39 percent have no employer-sponsored retirement plan whatsoever and will likely depend entirely on Social Security, which pays an average benefit of $1,239 per month.

[http://www.ips-dc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/IPS-Two-Retirements-Report-final-for-dec-15.pdf]

Rather than offer popular solutions that would address these and other issues related to the economic crisis affecting the vast majority, Clinton and the Democrats pursued a losing strategy of attempting to win over the more “moderate Republicans.”  They arrogantly assumed that workers had nowhere to go but vote Democratic. The remarks of  Chuck Schumer, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Committee in July 2016, show it best:

“For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”

The essence of the Clinton campaign was to try to cement the neoliberal dream of a future America — that her coalition of the urban elite and sheep dogged identity groups in America, wooed by both an honest but only surface-level support of multiculturalism and a phony ideology of ‘pragmatism,’ can continue to elect Democrats while holding absolutely no one accountable. But set against the backdrop of world capitalism in crisis, this ideology (or lack thereof) — “America is already great” — excited few.

Enter the Donald, the other half of the two most disliked presidential candidates in US history. His right-wing “populist” campaign message of simultaneously blaming immigrants, Muslims, Washington insiders, and corporate-friendly “trade deals” for job losses whipped a nationalistic fervor that gradually gained traction and tapped into the economic angst of many.

Unfortunately, the groundwork of the anti-foreigner sentiment promoted by Trump had actually already been laid by the decades-long campaigns of unions that constantly railed against “foreign imports” while simultaneously preaching “labor management harmony” to protect their “partners,” soulless multinational corporations.

Confusion, disorientation, and apathy engulfed the rank-and-file as workers were told by union leaders and Democrats that the corporations are their “allies” and need “concessions” to remain “competitive,” even as jobs, benefits, pensions and whole communities were being gutted and poisoned over the decades by these same multinational capitalists.

In 2012, the AFL-CIO in Ohio even promoted the movie, Death by China, made by Peter Navarro, Trump’s appointee to a new White House position on trade and industrial policy. Recently, the AFL-CIO appeared optimistic about Navarro’s appointment and reported that he “has raised some important critiques of American trade policy and we look forward to working with him to translate that into real policies that benefit America’s workers.”  These are signs that Trump’s opposition to the TPP forebodes an even more aggressive trade position against China, escalating the possibilities of a retaliatory trade war and military conflict.


The road ahead

However, like during the Jackson campaign, there was a small but significant section of organized labor that both endorsed the Sanders campaign and is open to solutions that challenge the unfettered rule of corporations and the “free” market.  And as the primary vote totals show, this critical support from labor unions is accompanied by even greater support in the general public. As liberals are engulfed in a sea of finger-pointing to explain this loss, labor must recognize that there is already a critical mass of unionized workers and a large segment of the general population that can be a springboard for an alternative independent political movement.

How can we broaden and deepen this budding class consciousness inside of labor to regain the necessary power to defend workers on the job?

Is it possible to build an independent movement that educates and mobilizes those inside labor and the general public for policies that challenge the current right-wing corporate agenda?

A key to the revitalization of labor is to begin an honest dialogue about the class struggle against all workers being led by corporate America. It spans decades and continues under successive Democratic and Republican administrations. Organized labor’s response to these ongoing attacks has been totally ineffective, resulting in a sharp decline in the number of union members along with its ability to effect changes in the economic and political arenas.


What kind of trade union do workers need today?

And what are the changes in strategy and tactics necessary for labor to best defend worker interests on the job, in the community and in the political arena? The working class is searching for answers and is open to more militant and class-based responses but has no organizational forum to help move this debate forward.

Activists with a class struggle vision need to lead this bottom-up organizing with the understanding and confidence that real power comes through education and mobilization of the rank-and-file. This foundation that begins at the grassroots level will be a slow and arduous process of articulating a bolder and more militant approach to bargaining, organizing and politics. Victory is not always certain but never educating and mobilizing workers to challenge the rule of corporations is a guarantee for defeat.

The confusion, anger, and desire for change must be addressed at all levels within labor. It won’t be easy, nor are there any “hero leaders” that can change the internal lifelessness that typifies most labor organizations. Both labor-management cooperation, which pacifies and confuses the rank-and-file, and the poodle-like following of the Democratic Party must be critically examined and replaced with class- struggle unionism and independent political action — a strategy that consciously works to connect the dots and show that workers have more in common with each other than with their boss.

Building real power on the job also has its parallel in politics — independent political action. Issues like Medicare for All, Fight for Fifteen, taxing the wealthy to provide a public works jobs program to rebuild America, and support for public education, are just a few causes that resonate strongly and can be the catalyst for a powerful unifying message. This will be a message that counters the confusion, apathy, and hopelessness now afflicting many who are increasingly turned off by what is pushed as “practical politics” by the two mainstream parties.

The Rainbow Coalition can be an outline for the type of year-round independent political vehicle that restores the voice of the working class as the proper foil to Trump’s populist demagogy. Both the necessity of this sort of vehicle and the fading irrelevance of labor’s current strategies were again made evident by the 2016 election. The building of a working- class based, grassroots movement inside of labor and in the public can’t wait until the next election cycle.

Organized labor’s rich history through great upheavals like those of the CIO show that with principled leadership and a vision, labor, fueled by the energy of the workers within it, can lead this political movement.

Ed Grystar

(Ed Grystar was president of the Butler County United Labor Council, AFL-CIO, from 1987 to 2003, Pennsylvania state coordinator for the 2004 Dennis Kucinich campaign, and Western Pennsylvania coordinator of Labor for Jackson in 1988.)

Red Dawn in Pennsylvania

It’s been three weeks since the election and I still encounter so many people who can’t believe that Pennsylvania, like most of the rest of the country, is a “red” state. In 2016 Pennsylvania finally voted for a Republican presidential candidate, even if by the slimmest of margins.  Just as maddening for Democrats, Katie McGinty lost the senatorial race to rightwing nut Pat Toomey by a similar margin.

But it doesn’t end there: our congressional delegation has 13 Republicans to five Dems, and the GOP increased its already considerable margin in the General Assembly; they now have a 122 to 81 advantage in the house and a veto-sustaining 34 to 16 margin in the state senate. We’re going to be seeing red a lot for the next two years.

Liberal commentators – insulated elitists that many of them are – have been blaming the white working class, or non college-educated whites, for the nationwide debacle.  I’m tired of hearing all the snide “Pennsyltucky” comments: they’re not funny and, as the polling data is showing, not very accurate.  A lot of college-educated people pulled the lever for Trump and other down-ballot Republicans, including the highly educated union members in the two teachers unions.

No, lack of education wasn’t the problem.  Stevie Wonder captured the mood of voters of all races and genders decades ago when he sang:“We are sick and tired of hearing your song/Telling how you are changing right from wrong/’Cause if you really want to hear our view/you haven’t done nothin.’”

Anyone trying to come up with an electoral strategy to reverse national and local GOP dominance should study the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign for president.

A working-class problem?

Perhaps the “problem” with those workers – especially the white ones – is a problem of leadership: no leadership and misleadership. With only 11 percent of all eligible employees belonging to unions – 6.7 percent in the private sector – it’s safe to say that most workers have no organic political leaders.  They have to find them where they can, among politicians, religious leaders and celebrities.  There’s not a lot of political clarity or wisdom to be found from Kanye West, Angelina Jolie or someone from the cast of Duck Dynasty.

But looking to one’s obvious leaders — trade union officials — doesn’t offer much better. Take, for example, the inane remarks of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.  After attributing Hillary Clinton’s defeat, at least in part, to sexism, she reaches this conclusion: “So I think we’re never really ever going to understand it.”

Okay then, she’s not familiar with feminist theory. Even worse, Weingarten goes on to say that Bernie Sanders, who has been in Congress since 1992 and whose record is an open book, “was never tested or vetted by anyone, and frankly we have no idea whether he would have actually been able to get through this crucible.”

By “anyone,” Weingarten means anyone in the Democratic Party power structure – the very same people who find unions and union leaders like Weingarten contemptible. Our nation’s labor leaders have no independent political vision.  It’s embarrassing to see how slavish they are in serving Democrats who reciprocate by giving very little in return. Labor would be better off eschewing electoral politics altogether and concentrating on organizing and representing workers.

It would be great to see this kind of leadership replaced by one that has vision and true dedication to their membership and the working class in general, and that is a matter that must ultimately be settled by working men and women. But in the meantime, we need aspiring political leaders who understand the value of creating or being a part of broad movements for change.  And that type of leader can come from anywhere, not necessarily labor. Back in the 1980’s, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was such a leader.

Hope through struggle

Unlike Barack Obama’s Hope/Change thing, Jackson’s “Keep Hope Alive” slogan was tied to a history of participation in grassroots movements and a vision of creating a new movement — a Rainbow Coalition — to achieve goals that mainstream politicians and commentators saw as either unreasonable or unachievable.  His platform called for affirmative action, passing the ERA, cutting defense spending, a foreign policy based on respect for self-determination, immigrant rights, civil rights, single-payer health care, reversing the Reagan tax cuts for the rich, ending the so-called war on drugs, free community college for all, support for family farmers, reparations for the descendants of slaves, and more.

To achieve these objectives, Jackson believed in coalition building — fusing existing movements into a Rainbow Coalition of common interests. He visibly fought for his platform before his first presidential run in 1984, between the 1984 and 1988 campaigns, as well as during the latter campaign.

Jackson won 11 primaries or caucuses – in places like Alabama, Louisiana, Michigan, Georgia, Mississippi and Vermont, where he had the endorsement of then Burlington mayor Bernie Sanders. He had strong finishes in several others and his campaign registered 2 million new voters.  Needless to say, many of his supporters were white working class folks; he even won some endorsements from majority-white union locals.

Jackson’s big weakness was his considerable ego and willingness to compromise with Democratic Party power brokers at the expense of his Rainbow Coalition, which never developed the capacity to function effectively without him.  He ended up getting it backwards, and we’re all the worse off for it.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water.  The potential power of coalitions based on common interest was demonstrated.  Nor should we place all of the blame on Jackson: he was indeed a charismatic figure, but it’s not his fault that our nation’s culture, political and otherwise, is so enamored with charisma.

We still need to build and sustain powerful mass movements; if we are to succeed in electing politicians who will serve our people’s needs, they need to be tied to and pushed by masses of people.

Crying over the defeat of Hillary Clinton — a (possibly) good person who is certainly not beholden to people like us, but instead to ultra-rich ruling-class powers — is a waste of time.  Scapegoating white workers misleads people who are already confused.  We need to build strong movements — in labor, among oppressed people of all races, genders and colors — from which strong leaders — not just a leader — can emerge to serve our interests.

As bad as things seem to be, the future is unwritten.  But it’s past time to write off people like the Clintons, who haven’t done nothin.’

— Coleman Saint James

 

 

 

 

 

The Morning After

There was a lot of talk among Democrats and their fellow travelers before the general election about the crisis in the GOP. Donald Trump – outlandish, buffoonish and downright unelectable – had, by winning the party’s nomination, led the Republican Party to drink from the waters that it had so terribly polluted.  He had taken the party’s possibly cynical embrace of rightwing crazies like Tea Partiers, creationists and anti-choicers to its logical conclusion: implosion.

 But who’s in crisis now? Whose party is in danger of, if not implosion, then sliding into a period of weak and floundering opposition to the know-nothing GOP juggernaut that is now firmly in control of things?

If the Democrats can’t even defeat a candidate like Donald Trump, can they ever be expected to retake the White House or regain a majority in either or both houses of Congress? Will our citizens ever be freed from the tyranny of state governments run by ignorant Republicans hell bent on destroying all that is public and not profitable?

We’re at the long receiving end of the so-called Reagan “revolution,” my friends, a decades-long realignment of political forces and economic priorities. It’s been a long time since Democrats could count on unorganized white workers to vote for them – maybe because it’s been a long time since the Democrats have done anything for anybody because they’re workers.  Black, Latino, and women workers benefit from civil rights policies, which the Democrats are still willing to support, so they still support Democrats but not as workers.

As for organized workers, it’s long past time for labor to stop busting their asses for the Democrats who only repay them with support for economic policies that must have folks like John L. Lewis, Phil Murray and even FDR spinning in their graves.

Occupy the political space

For the past decade or so, liberal Dems have staked their fortunes and future on demographic changes that their naïve, if well meaning, policy wonks have termed “cultural.” Culture is somehow interwoven with “identity,” and everybody has to be identified.  She’s not just a woman; she’s an Afro-Asian with a hint of Scotch-Irish woman!  Once everyone is correctly identified, we can come up with the algorithm for optimum “diversity.”

The word diversity is now spoken as if there’s some magic in its very utterance. It might come as a surprise to some people to learn that this has always been a diverse country, made up of people of many different races, from many different places, who have had many different experiences. And here’s a tidbit about “minorities:” people who have been excluded aren’t concerned about diversity – they want inclusion and fairness.  Inclusion might refer to the right to a decent education, good-paying job and a nice house or apartment to live in.  An example of fairness would be not being shot by police under circumstances that white citizens would survive.

The Occupy movement was on the right track when it said that there are those making money, and then there are the rest of us. The ninety-nine percent includes people of all races, genders, nationalities, religions and ages.  Once upon a time, they were called members of the working class and the middle class.  We don’t use that working-class term much anymore, except to disparage (some of) the people who voted for Donald Trump.  I suggest we start using that word again to describe the people who, well . . . work.  Then we might want to rethink what it really means to be in the middle.

On this “morning after” an election where we learned just how cuckoo our political system has become, I suggest we save some of our vitriol for Trump voters and give it to the Democrats who haven’t really been for the working people for a very long time. It’s time to stop supporting smooth, cynical, venal politicians who don’t give a rat’s ass about common people once the election season is over.

I wrote earlier that the ruling class – even elites in the Republican Party – had lined up behind Hillary Clinton, and so they had. But now the GOP controls the entire federal government and the majority of state governments as well, and you can bet that that’s just fine with this same ruling class.  Their interests will be well served by a billionaire landlord who believes in lowering taxes on corporations and the rich, while lowering the boom on the rest of us.

And so I suggest, once again, in the words of the immortal Joe Hill: Don’t waste time mourning; organize! Let’s make the next four years very uncomfortable for Trump and the GOP.

— James Collins

Gridiron Grit

NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has restored the role of the black athlete as a leading fighter for human rights in general, and specifically for the rights of African Americans.  His simple act of kneeling, rather than standing with hand on heart, during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner has inspired myriad acts of protest and solidarity from athletes at all levels, ranging from pre-teen youth to professional football and basketball players.

The practice of not worshipping the flag and related trappings of patriotism at sporting events has impacted the Pittsburgh area in a big way.  People are taking a stand for equality by taking the knee, and some of the heroes aren’t even athletes – they’re player supporters like parents, fans and cheerleaders.

The fans and cheerleaders of Cornell High School in Coraopolis haven’t had much to cheer about on the gridiron — the Raiders have yet to win a game – but on September 30th twelve out of fifteen Cornell cheerleaders took a knee during the playing of the national anthem.  The honor guard at that particular game happened to represent the local VFW post, and so the protest prompted tears, vitriol and stupid statements like “these kids don’t know what they’re doing.”

Don’t know what they’re doing? How about, protesting racism?

More ominously, Superintendent Aaron Thomas, his family and other administrators received hundreds of threatening phone calls as the Youtube video went viral and paragons of truth and reason like the website Blue Lives Matter spread the lie that Thomas had deliberately set the vets up.  To Thomas and the school board’s credit, the rights of the students to protest were respected, but because of the threats, attendance at the homecoming game two weeks later was restricted to parents of players.

The bold action of the cheerleaders, with the parents standing behind them, and the superintendent standing behind them, is representative of the pluck of this small community. The very existence of this year’s winless football team is a victory: it is the first team Cornell has fielded in five years.  The last team, from 2011, went 5-5 and made the WPIAL playoffs.  This year’s team has few players with any high school football experience – just a few who had suited up for Quaker Valley in previous seasons but none of them had gotten any playing time.

Cornell serves residents of Coraopolis and Neville Township, small working-class communities whose population has dwindled over the decades – Coraopolis has about 5,600 residents and Neville about 1,000 – so there aren’t a lot of kids in the district.  The percentage of African-Americans, in both Coraopolis and the school district, is rising.

The response of Thomas, the school board, coaching staff and parents is commendable. Rather than give in to those who would mischaracterize legitimate (and respectful) protest speech as something else, this small working-class community seems to be holding the line and supporting their youth.

Abide no evil

Last month, three players from Woodland Hills took a knee during the national anthem during a game at Bethel Park.  The all-black team was then subjected to racial taunts from the stands and from opposing players.  This was a game in the Parkway Youth Football League, whose players are 12-and-under.

The same three Wolverines had taken a knee earlier in the season, with no backlash from fans. When questioned then by their coach about the motive of their actions, they reasonably enough felt strongly about the spate of cop-on-black killings – especially the shooting of young Tamir Rice in Cleveland.  Coach Marcus Burkley Sr. decided to support their right to express their opinions.  He was proud of how his team kept its composure in Bethel Park, going on to win the game by a score of 20-6.  (See the Oct. 15 Post-Gazette.)

The president of the Bethel Park team promised an investigation and Woodland Hills officials were initially optimistic.  But it turned out to be a hear-no-evil investigation.  The Bethel Park Junior Football Board released a statement that said, “Not one individual we spoke with observed, witnessed or can corroborate Woodland Hills’ accusations of racial slurs or discrimination.”

But Woodland Hills supporters aren’t buying it and in a massive show of solidarity, dozens of fans of all ages – black and white – took a knee before the young Wolverines’ home game against Moon Township late last month.

A lot of divisive trash talk has congealed around the election and the response to the police shootings of people of color, attempting to portray our reality as black against white, native born versus immigrants, and scary blacks versus hard-pressed cops. But these local incidents point the way forward. White people can and do support the sanctity of black lives and our right to protest injustice.  In both cases, these are working-class communities where black and white live in close proximity to one another and go to school together.

And it is the young people who have forced the issue; thank goodness the adults responded.

 

— Jim Collins

Millionaire versus Billionaire: The Final Frontier?

This year’s presidential contest, now thankfully heading into the final stretch of campaigning, makes one wonder how much longer the American people will tolerate a political system of the rich, for the rich, and by the rich. No matter your political affiliation, ideology or beliefs, it’s likely that both major party candidates strike you as being mucho unsavory.

Of course Donald Trump is the worst. An unhinged egomaniac with few equals, Trump could be called a fraud if he didn’t actually believe his every boast.  Nevertheless, he’s not to be trusted.  Rather than serve as president of the United States, I would think it’s still not to late to either hospitalize him (involuntarily, of course) or incarcerate him for something along the order of business fraud or tax evasion.  Yes, he’s that crazy and that corrupt, and it speaks to our rigged socioeconomic and political systems that a man like him is allowed to get wealthy at the expense of others.

Many people call Trump a fascist and maybe he would become our dictator-for-life under the right circumstances. But he reminds me more of Silvio Berlusconi, the four-time prime minister of Italy who dominated Italian politics for most of the 1990s and the beginning of this century.  A billionaire who, like Trump, adores the limelight (albeit in a much raunchier fashion), Berlusconi flaunted his wealth while claiming to be a man of the people and his nation’s salvation: the name of his political party translates as “Go Italy” in English.

For years, numerous corruption charges failed to stick and Berlusconi became the longest-serving prime minister in post-war Italy.  Finally, the Eurozone crisis weakened him enough in 2011 to politically do him in for good – we hope.

That would be the best possible outcome of a Trump presidency: the man’s policies would surely bring about an economic and social crisis of mammoth proportions, leading to his ignominious downfall as well as (again, we hope) an end to the long-standing aforementioned setup of-for-and-by the rich.

As for Hillary Clinton, we all know she’ll lie at the drop of a hat. The email scandal demonstrates just what your parents told you about liars: after the first fib, they just keep telling more and more, even after they’ve been caught. We know just how venal she is, too, her profitable speechifying and the pay-to-play scandal being just two examples.  As for the business of scamming people, we’ve heard about Trump University but what about Laureate International Universities?

It seems that Bill Clinton was paid somewhere between $16 and $17 million to act as “honorary chancellor” of this for-profit chain of secondary schools from 2010 to 2015.

Suffice it to say that Laureate has a crushing debt load, still managed to generously contribute to the Clinton Foundation, disdains the trappings of ordinary universities (curriculum, syllabi, degrees, grades) and admitted to the Security and Exchange Commission that it has “weaknesses in our internal control over financial reporting.”

Trust Hillary (or anybody named Clinton)?  I don’t think so.

Ruling-class consensus

Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this election is that the ruling class is lining up solidly behind one candidate – Hillary Clinton. With a majority of the country’s money- and power-brokers supporting her, which proverbial angel dancing on her shoulders and whispering in her ears, do you think Hillary Clinton is going to listen to: the one advocating debt relief for students, justice for the harassed and incarcerated, a fairer tax structure, etc.; or the advocate of the continuation of trickle-down lite?

And almost certainly, a Clinton II presidency would do nothing to change our government’s aggressive, neo-imperialist foreign policy.

Our senatorial race in Pennsylvania also epitomizes the current situation: millionaire GOP incumbent Pat Toomey is facing off against millionaire Democrat Katie McGinty.  McGinty wins by default over a man who would do away with the increasingly symbolic corporate income tax. However, both campaigns have been absolutely masterful at pointing out the upper-class shenanigans of the other.  Katie McGinty might have working-class roots, but her track record makes her promise to champion the “middle class” hard to believe.

It’s a sad situation. Whether you hold your nose when you go to the polls and vote for a Democrat, or cast a ballot for a third party candidate like the Green Party’s Jill Stein, you know the outcome is going to be less than optimal for those of us who want international peace, an end to institutional racism and sexism, progress toward economic equality, and real action on climate change. Therefore, when the election is over it will be good to remember and heed the words of Joe Hill:

“Don’t waste time mourning.  Organize.”

— James Collins

Good Cop, Bad

Cameron McLay is a good cop and wants to be a good chief of police for Pittsburgh.  Even as police nationwide continue to shoot people of color, particularly African Americans, as if it’s hunting season, in McLay’s two years as police chief, complaints against Pittsburgh police are way down and lawsuits against the city have dropped by 50 percent.  In these two years City of Pittsburgh police have also avoided the stark, racist shootings and beatings of black folk that have sparked outrage, protests and rebellions across the country.

That’s saying something for a department once cited by the Justice Department for using excessive force, making false arrests, carrying out improper searches and seizures, and failing to supervise and discipline rogue officers.

But the majority of rank-and-file officers have “no confidence” in their chief, as demonstrated by a recent poll taken by their union, the FOP. That poll is nonbinding and the last Pittsburgh chief to lose one ended up serving ten more years, but one shouldn’t count on such an outcome in today’s law-and-order America.  A spike in crime (visible crime against people and property, that is; not the white-collar kind), the rise of a charismatic politician adept at playing the law-and-order (or race) card, or any number of unforeseeable occurrences could turn McLay into a casualty of his good intentions.

McLay has staked his legacy as chief on community policing – repairing, building and maintaining relationships with the people of the communities that his force polices.  Coming to Pittsburgh from Madison, Wisconsin, he has been vocal in criticizing the old department’s ways and proactive in making changes.

There’s one thing McLay cannot change: the police protect some communities and police others.  There is never much tension between the police and the protected communities, but the second type of community often experiences the police as an occupying force.  McLay is trying to change how black communities are policed, but is he – or his boss, the mayor – even aware of the larger protected/policed dichotomy?

But just being nicer to oppressed communities is too much for many current cops. McLay alienated many of his troops after just two months on the job when, after a meeting with anti-racism activists, he posted this photo on his Twitter account:

mclay-image

McLay closed his account and took down the photograph, but didn’t apologize for the sentiments expressed by the sign he carried. As the months and years passed, his transgressions against the cops continued.  He fired bully Stephen Matakovich, famously caught on video beating a teenager outside Heinz Field; he made cops work security for the hated Beyonce’s concert; he wouldn’t let them wear riot gear at a Trump event earlier this year; and, the final straw, he appeared at the Democratic National Convention in uniform.

McLay’s speech didn’t endorse Hillary Clinton, but the FOP usually endorses Republican presidential candidates, as it did again this year.  And what McLay was endorsing is much worse than Hillary Clinton to many cops – the sanctity of black lives.  McLay appeared during a DNC program segment featuring “Mothers of the Movement” – people who had lost loved ones to police violence including the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Hadiya Pendleton, and Sandra Bland.

This willingness to co-exist with the Black Lives Matter movement was too much for Pittsburgh FOP president Robert Swartzwelder and his backers.  They began pushing for a “vote.”

Right now McLay continues to have the backing of Mayor Peduto, city council and, most crucially, the black community. He will need all that support and more to stay the course in the months to come.  Changing the way oppressed communities are policed won’t do away with the oppression, but we’ll take any break we can get.

Do the wrong thing

Stephen Mader of Weirton tried to be a good cop, but he was fired last spring for refusing to shoot suspect Ronald Williams Jr. of Pittsburgh.  In official City of Weirton-ese, Mader “failed to eliminate a threat.”  The “threat,” a young distraught African-American, was carrying an unloaded weapon.

Mader was a Marine Corp veteran and had been on the Weirton force for less than a year.  He took his use-of-force training from both institutions seriously and when he was confronted with a suspect who was, in Mader’s judgment, mentally unstable and trying to commit “suicide by cop,” Mader refused to shoot and used words to calm the suspect down.  Unfortunately, two of his colleagues arrived late on the scene, got Williams so agitated  that he began waving the gun, so one of the newcomers shot him dead.

Mader felt bad about the whole affair but didn’t blame his coworkers, who didn’t have as much information to work with. However, Mader’s superiors – the chief of police and the city manager – knew a bad apple when they saw one and fired Mader, who refused out of principal to resign as that would have been an admission of wrongdoing.

Maybe Stephen Mader would like to come to Pittsburgh to work for Cameron McLay.

— James Collins